Colonel Shelby

DESCRIPTION: "Colonel Shelby, Colonel Shelby, I do not think it right For you to charge on Dardanelle At such a time of night. This old coat, I don't want it, I guess I'll have to run, I've not got sword or pistol Nor even a shotgun"
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1942 (Randolph)
KEYWORDS: Civilwar soldier desertion
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Randolph 247, "Colonel Shelby" (1 text)
Roud #7713
NOTES [804 words]: Colonel (later Brigadier General) Joseph O. "Jo" Shelby (1830-1897) was one of those romantic figures so common in the Confederate cavalry. Born in Kentucky (CivilWarAlmanac, p. 375), and educated at Transylvania University before moving to Missouri to grow hemp (Shea, p. 89) and run the "Waverly Steam Rope Factory" (Gerteis, p. 41), he cut his teeth in the Kansas conflict (Foote, p. 784). He was a cousin of the political Blair family of Missouri, one of whom was Lincoln's postmaster general and another almost Lincoln's viceroy in Missouri, so his family hoped he would be Unionist. Indeed, he would eventually say that John Brown, i.e. the abolitionists, were right (Arthur, photo facing p. 143). But he quickly joined the secessionist forces (Gerteis, pp. 41-42). He first commanded cavalry under Sterling Price in Missouri, and served most of the war in the Trans-Mississippi, fighing at the battles of Wilson's Creek and Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern as a junior officer (Shea, p. 89).
His unit proved exceptional enough that it came to be called "Shelby's Iron Brigade" (see the entry on "Shelby's Iron Brigade" in HTIECivilWar).
When the war ended, Shelby fled to Mexico rather than surrender. According to CivilWarAlmanac, he took about 600 troopers with him, and tried to prop up the French-backed government of the Emperor Maximilian. When Maximilian fell, Shelby returned to Missouri (1867). In an interesting folkloric note, he testified on behalf of Frank James when the latter was on trial for murder (Shea, p. 89) -- perhaps not so surprising, since both were raiders who fought in the Missouri area, ad Shelby is sometimes associated with Quantrill's Raiders, in which Frank James fought (see the notes to "Jesse James (III)" and "Charlie Quantrell").
Like so many cavalry officers, Shelby deliberately cut a dashing figure. This may have led to the disillusionment shown by his subordinate here.
Shelby seems to have inspired at least one other fragment of a song. Fred W. Allsopp's Folklore of Romantic Arkansas, Volume II (1931), p. 222, has a stanza "Jo Shelby's at your stable door, Hide your mule, hide your mule... There's something up and hell's to pay, When Shelby's on a raid...." This is said to be an addition to the Union song "Hide Your Mule," which does not seem to have entered tradition.
Dardanelle is near Russellville, Arkansas, a little north of the halfway point of a line between Fort Smith and Little Rock. It probably goes without saying that there was no major battle there. Phisterer reports two skirmishes there (p. 174: May 10, 1864, involving the 6th Kansas Cavalry ; Jan. 14, 1865, involving the 2 Kansas Cavalry and some Iowa horsemen).
It's barely possible that one of these events is the fight mentioned, but they're both very minor and unlikely to inspire a song -- plus Shelby had been promoted by then. We know that it happened after Pea Ridge in March 1862, since Shelby was then still a captain (Shea, p. 112). My guess is that this refers to some event in the summer or fall of 1862. In June of that year, Shelby was a colonel organizing a cavalry brigade in northwestern Arkansas to take part in an invasion of Missouri. He fought at the battle of Prairie Grove, still in northwestern Arkansas, in late 1862 (for background on that battle, see the notes to "Prairie Grove"). By the middle of 1863, he was wounded in fighting in Helena, Arkansas, far east of Dardanelle, and he was promoted Brigadier General that fall.
The picture of unarmed Confederates is all too accurate. Price's Missouri militia was initially armed mostly with fowling pieces brought by the soldiers themselves, and the Confederates never did manage to build much of a munitions industry. To a great extent they had to depend on captured Federal weapons. And the earlier in the war, the poorer their equipment. (Even as late as Prairie Grove, lack of equipment was a major problem for them.) This adds to the impression that Randolph's fragment describes something that happened in 1862.
There are several biographies of Shelby, and histories of his wild career, including Arthur's. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that these are completely unreliable. Arthur, p. 228, says that most of the information about Shelby comes from two books by John Newman Edwards, Shelby and His Men (1867) and Shelby's Expedition to Mexico (1872). Arthur says that historians are forced to rely on these because most of Shelby's own records were destroyed by fire. And Edwards was one of Shelby's officers and knew him well (Edwards takes up almost a full page in Arthur's index). But he is also the person who gave us the Frank and Jesse James legend, making it up essentially out of whole cloth. I think we have to treat him -- and, hence, every work on Shelby -- as fundamentally unreliable. - RBW
BibliographyLast updated in version 4.3
File: R247

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